This piece is longer than the average post. Written in a few sittings over several months, it contains that which I have been attempting to find expression for over the course of nearly a year; an exercise in trying to give coherence to a period of rapid change. It is incomplete and unfixed, as it should be. As I am currently beginning a new endeavor, this seems as good a time as any to post it as a personal trail marker. I don’t expect many people to trudge all the way through, but regardless of how much you read, your feedback is welcomed. As a final introductory thought, I would like to note and problematize my heavy reliance on white men as sources for this piece. While not my conscious intention, it was an end result. This speaks to both my personal and the institutional prejudices that exist when it comes to determining what constitutes knowledge and who is permitted to produce it. Ones I plan to address in my work moving forward.
For about a year, up until recently, I had a regular meditation practice, sitting every morning for 20 to 30 minutes. For the initial part of that year, I met frequently with a teacher who, having spent years in contemplative practice both as a Christian and a Buddhist monk, came to develop his own approach to meditation and spirituality more generally. I am deeply indebted to him, as the way in which he explained spirituality appealed to my then-militantly atheist worldview. His approach helped nudge open the door which I had so emphatically kept shut at all costs, allowing in the slightest of possibilities that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something greater going on and that a reconsideration of my perspective might be merited.
The two of us would have lengthy discussions about life, the universe and everything, never arriving at an answer, 42 or otherwise. A point I kept returning to was where does spirituality leave us regarding social justice and collective liberation? I can concede the benefits to my personal life of meditation, mindfulness, and being in the present moment. I can even appreciate, though philosophically disagree with, ideas such as Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yet these all seem to be individual, subjective and inward-looking practices that when taken to the extreme encourage a retreat from the world in the name of spirituality. We cannot meditate capitalism out of existence, we must act. He assured me that working for social justice was the natural end result of spirituality as it leads to right action. This assurance did not satisfy me and I asked him to explain it further.
In February, I saw down with renowned indie hip-hop artist sole for a few hours and the result is the latest episode of his podcast, the Solecast, released yesterday. We covered a lot of ground, from Occupy Oakland to Palestine, Chiapas, Cuba, Rojava, the elections, anarchism and more. And he said a bunch of unnecessarily nice stuff about me in the intro, for which I thank him.
Give it a listen and let us know what you think!
Disclaimer: That photo is a screenshot from a 2011 interview I did with Keith Olbermann. I don’t like it but sole does and it’s his show, so who am I to argue?
As I came home from work on Thursday, I could see one of my roommates on the phone at the other end of the house, waving me towards him, a look of concern and distress in his eyes. We went outside, where he shared what had happened a few minutes prior. He, who I’ll call L, had just had a bizarre interaction with our other roommate, who I’ll call M. (I’ve changed the identities, left out specifics and received M’s permission before posting this.)
M had all of the sudden begun speaking incoherent non-sequiturs to L and locked herself in her room. He didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know what to do. What followed was a four-hour series of events where I tried to assist someone experiencing a severe mental health crisis while encountering my own unfitness to do so and the frustration at a lack of safe options available.
One of the most insidious aspects of addiction is that it’s a disease which convinces you that you don’t have it. It manifests in a powerful form of denial. Ask a person with addiction why they drink or use and the answer will rarely be, “Because I’m an addict.” Invariably the reply will pin the cause on a certain circumstance, person or event, or just “because I want to, I can stop anytime, leave me alone.” For the addict, the few times drinking or using didn’t lead to things getting out of control, or to a series of unintended consequences, are firmly grasped onto and elevated as proof that one doesn’t have a problem. The mountain of evidence to the contrary is swept out of mind. When things go awry they are presented as aberrations instead of what they are, which is the norm. Desperate to prove to ourselves and others that we’ve got things under control, we repeatedly pick up again, convinced that this time it will be different. It never is. And the cycle continues on its ruinous spiral.
There are few things better or more powerful in this world than a good story. The human capacities of communication, creativity and meaning-making allow for the transmission of individual narratives to be collectively experienced through the similarly remarkable capacities of empathy, identification and mirroring. These gifts can certainly be abused when directed in the service of hate or fear, but I am interested at the moment in the positive potential of the process when it invokes feelings of love and communion through the shared experience and recognition of beinghood. Emmanuel Levinas argued that what emerges through this intersubjective face-to-face encounter with the Other provides the basis for ethics, or as he pithily put it, “For others, in spite of myself, from myself.”
That every one of us can both tell and receive stories is a remarkable proposition. We each carry our own personal story and the longer our hearts beat, the more our stories integrate knowledge and experience, hopefully resulting in wisdom. Yet within the Cartesian paradigm, now manifesting through the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, far too often the voices of wisdom are silenced by the privileged beneficiaries of the current system, who cloak their own self-interested rhetoric in the veneer of logic and rationality. Through the institutions at their disposal, they impose their worldview on others, coercing adaptation and assimilation. For the purposes of this piece, my concern here is how this worldview denies the validity of subjectivity, intersubjectivity and interiority, except when it can be commodified, tokenized or otherwise rendered impotent. Such is its insinuation in our lives that even disciplines dedicated to interiority, such as psychology, more often than not constitute colonized terrain.
In June 2015, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, a project of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, published an essay by Kevin Van Meter of the Team Colors Collective titled Freely Disassociating: Three Stories on Contemporary Radical Movements. Moved by his proposal for an anarchism with principles, I responded to Van Meter’s essay in July with Towards an Anarchism with Principles: A Response to ‘Freely Disassociating‘, also published on the IAS website.
In October, Van Meter offered a thoughtful reply to my piece, posted as a comment here. Shortly thereafter, IAS published another essay by Van Meter, Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles, an impressive document that takes the discussion deeper and in new directions. Rather belatedly, today I put forward my closing thoughts – for now – in response to Van Meter’s reply. My response can be found below and also in the comments section on the IAS website. Reading what follows makes more sense in the context of the aforementioned essays. If you have the time and interest, I encourage you to read the pieces linked to above before proceeding to this last entry. I would like to thank Kevin Van Meter for his insightful work and for encouraging my thinking around these topics. Similarly, I thank the Institute for Anarchist Studies for making the space available to have this discussion.
Firstly, I would like to thank Kevin Van Meter for his thoughtful and constructive response and encourage readers to take in his article “Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles.” Secondly, I apologize for my much-delayed reply. In it, I will comment on some of Van Meter’s points/critiques and hopefully refine some of my arguments from my initial response.
Mosaic by José Rodríguez Fuster.
A gaggle of U.S. tourists enters the physical therapy room of a nursing home in Havana. I glance to my right and, catching my eyes, an elderly woman asks, “Do you speak Spanish?” I tell her that I do, and with hope in her voice she inquires, “Did they lift the blockade?” My heart drops a little. No, I lament, they haven’t. A change in U.S. law now allows U.S. citizens to legally travel to Cuba on cultural and educational trips, hence my presence in her home, but the embargo still stands. We discuss her son living in Florida, the high cost of medicine and the injustice of the embargo, and I depart.
“For what I’m saying to you, they could call me a counterrevolutionary and throw me in jail for ten years,” he tells me. Part of me wonders then as to the wisdom of his decision to open up to a relative stranger. But there is nothing particularly incendiary about his comments. Merely discussion about the economic situation. How one cannot make enough money to cover expenses, let alone save money. How the increase in tourism plus the policy of allowing family businesses to open that cater to tourists is creating a growing class divide. How the leaders are corrupt, or in his words, are “friends helping one another out” at the expense of the average Cuban.
I want to write about my recent trip to Cuba while acknowledging I am far from being an expert and was only there for eight days. Similarly, I seek to avoid generic platitudes about the pride or resilience of the Cuban people, or to lay blame for the current situation solely at the feet of either the U.S. or Cuban governments. Like Silvio above, I wonder what adjectives, harmonies and stories to use to do justice to describe the country.
Late one July afternoon, I sat next to a statue of Pan, playing his flute as an algae-filled fountain bubbled its tune to the tadpoles flitting about, their franticness matched only by the birds darting to and from their nests. At a weekend workshop which had concluded for the day, I felt buoyed by the waves of meaningful connections made. While at the same time, a pleasant weightiness attached itself to my limbs, that mental exhaustion which saps a body of its physical energy. Intense work had been done. We were excavating pasts to inform the present, traversing topographies of daylights and dreamscapes. I stand and sheepishly look around for a totem to serve as reminder and embodiment of the day. My eyes settle on a smooth, plain white rock. Reaching down, I pick it up and silently ask if I may bring the rock with me. I feel an unmistakable assent. Rolling the rock in my hand reveals its hidden underbelly, mica reflecting the warm, setting sun’s rays. Inhaling dusk air comprised of drought and ocean, I make some tea and head to my room. None of this makes sense and that is absolutely beautiful.
There I pick up a recently published book on social change and read how society is composed of basic functions and spheres where people matter due to the roles they fill and the mechanistic decisions they make. How to change society, we simply must realize it no longer fits our cost-benefit analysis and we will construct a new one based on a better rate of exchange.
The below is the introduction to a piece I wrote, published today on the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ website. Please check out the full essay there.
I read with interest Kevin Van Meter’s recent essay, Freely Disassociating: Three Stories on Contemporary Radical Movements published by Perspectives on Anarchist Theory on the Institute for Anarchist Studies website. In it, he discusses the current climate within the anarchist movement, painting a grim picture where increasingly meaningless labels and judgments get tossed about like political hand grenades, shutting down discussion, utilizing guilt-by-association, fomenting an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism and devolving into moralizing-outrage-as-activism. In his third of the three anecdotes he shares, he also elaborates how association with the anarchist movement can lead to unreasonable expectations and standards being placed on an individual. As a result, the radical movement has largely become a void consumed by the loudest voices or the latest controversy, leading people to disassociate from it.
Facing this scenario, Van Meter argues for developing an “anarchism with principles” based in a milieu of “working class, and revolutionary, intellectual culture.” The principles would emerge through dialog, debate, organizing and application in struggle.
Hopefully my summary fairly characterizes his piece, though I suggest people read it themselves. As I am currently undertaking an evaluation of how I personally engage with radical politics, events and movements, I am drawn to the concerns he raises and his proposal of an “anarchism with principles.” In the spirit of dialog, I would like to offer up some thoughts of my own on the topic.
Read the full essay.
“What is spirituality?” he asks me.
I stop to think. Or rather, I stop to try to stop myself from thinking. Instead, I try to redirect my focus down to my gut in order to feel forth an answer.
“Faith.” That’s what I want to say. But I don’t. Still trying to turn my brain off, I spit out, “Spirituality is that sense that tells me when everything seems to be going to shit, it is going to be alright in the end.”
He smiles, knowingly. I can always tell when he is about to say something he thinks is profound – and therefore likely is – by this very specific smile that appears on his face right before he says it. Turning to the paper in front of us, he says, “It’s this.” And he draws an arrow pointing from where I have written “vulnerability/honesty,” connecting it to where I have written “spirituality.”
On the paper is a jumble of shapes, each labeled with something I believe I need to work on: spirituality, vulnerability/honesty, acceptance, willingness, wholeness/being myself, anxiety, and forgiveness. I’ve connected them with arrows. Hence the initial question and his proposal that vulnerability/honesty → spirituality. I contend that the opposite is the case, that spirituality is necessary for me to be open to being vulnerable. That the faith provided by spirituality that things are going to be ok if I get vulnerable is what allows me to do so.
“No,” he says. “Vulnerability is what allows spirituality in.” The time for smiles has passed. The conversation ends and I’m left to mull this over.